Reading and thinking about the new evangelization has moved me to reflect on the experience of conversion. Two thinkers who have helped in my reflection are St. Augustine and the 20th-century theologian, Jesuit Father Bernard Lonergan. When I read what Father Lonergan wrote about conversion and tried to come up with examples of the types of conversion that he identified, I found parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions helpful.
The Jesuit theologian distinguished three types of conversion: intellectual, moral and spiritual, or religious.
An intellectual conversion takes place when a person radically changes his or her way of looking at reality. For example, a person who is a Communist comes to believe in Christianity. In such a case, the person has gone from not believing that there is a God to believing that not only is there a God but God has become human.
In his Confessions, Augustine reports that at one time his vision of life was Manichean, a view of reality which taught that there was an evil principle equal to God. Eventually Augustine rejected that view and embraced Christian faith. That was an intellectual conversion. Augustine’s view of reality had changed radically from believing in an evil power equal to God to believing that there is one God who is supreme.
After he embraced the Christian view of reality, Augustine continued to sin seriously. Though he had changed his vision of reality, he had not changed the way he lived. Eventually, he did change the way that he lived and followed the moral teaching of the Church. That change was a moral conversion: Augustine not only believed but changed his conduct.
The third conversion is sometimes called a religious, or spiritual conversion. When Augustine underwent this third conversion, he was on his way to becoming one of the great saints of the Church. Father Lonergan wrote the following about religious, or spiritual conversion:
“Such transforming love has its occasions, its conditions, its causes. But once it comes and as long as it lasts, it takes over. One no longer is one’s own. Moreover, in the measure that this transformation is effective, development comes not merely from below upwards but more fundamentally from above downwards. There has begun a life in which the heart has reasons which reason does not know. There has been opened up a new world … It is such transforming love that enables Paul to say: ‘The life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me’” (Gal 2:20).
Can someone have an intellectual conversion and not have it accompanied by a moral conversion? I think this can happen. In fact, it seems to have been Augustine’s situation at least for a time. But can a person have a moral conversion without an intellectual conversion? I think this also can happen. Someone might change his or her way of living but retain the same outlook that he or she had while committing serious sins. An example I am thinking of is a fundamentalist who believes in the completely literal interpretation of sacred Scripture. I think such a person might undergo a moral conversion without undergoing an intellectual conversion.
Can a person undergo a religious conversion without undergoing either an intellectual or a moral conversion? My opinion is that someone who has a religious conversion might not have an intellectual conversion, but it seems a moral conversion would necessarily accompany a religious, or spiritual conversion. Of course, the ideal would be that all three types of conversion take place.
It seems to me that followers of Christ are called to undergo ongoing conversions. What I mean is that Christians are called to enter more deeply into the meaning of Christian faith. They’re also called to avoid sin and most importantly to fall more deeply in love with God.
I see an ongoing conversion not so much as a radical change but rather as an intensifying and deepening of a person’s life. A person’s conscience might be broadened, union with the Risen Lord might become more intimate and the person might become more receptive to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.